Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Contextual Hero

Recently I saw a cult classic for the first time. It's a film that was released the year I was born that has a sizable following and an interesting back story. This film is The Warriors.

It's a movie about gang violence but it has several elements to it that keep it from the simple evil vs. evil or evil vs. slightly less evil conflicts that plague this type of film. It has its basis in
Greek history/literature as well as what the director called a comic book aesthetic. The latter comes from the fact that the film was originally going to go with a more realistic tone and casting but the studio vetoed this idea.

So with reality thrown out the window stylization became the big factor. What a gang usually uses to identify itself is a particular way of wearing a normal article of clothing like a baseball cap or a certain color. In this film the gangs go all out. You have a gang of mimes, a gang of lesbians, a gang that wears baseball uniforms uses bats as weapons and wears KISS make-up etc... The titular gang has a native American theme and all wear the same vest and their primary adversaries the Gramercy Riffs have a bit of a Persian feel to them (not surprisingly).

But the whole idea of the story is that there is a universal truce across all the gangs of New York City for the purpose of a great conference where a messianic leader named Cyrus outlines a plan for all the gangs to unite and take over the city. Each gang sends nine men unarmed to this conference as representatives. But a gang called the Rogues has a different idea. One of them sneaks in a gun and uses it on the man who brought them all together, and in the ensuing chaos implicates the Warriors in his crime.

So you have eight men (their leader is one of the first lost in the shuffle) unarmed who have to make it thirty-one miles from the Bronx to Coney Island with every cop, and every other gang in the city gunning for them.

It's a thrilling story and it's fair to say that it highly romanticizes the idea of being in a gang. This is especially true in the character of Swan, the ad hoc leader who makes numerous statements about the idea of everything having been about finding a way to improve his life, and is faced with a painful realization when he finally makes it home.

"This is what we spent all night fighting to get back to."

But the simple truth is that you cannot look at the events of this film and see the Warriors as anything other than heroes who have an impeccable code of honor and an amazing degree of bravery.

Recently this film was adapted into a video game, which in the opening levels manages to destroy this. This is a gang, so on some level you're aware that these people do some pretty terrible things in their day to day lives. In the opening level of the game it points out that the Warriors need money to take care of their needs, and they get that money through robbing stores, mugging people, and stealing car stereos. Such heroism.

But the film itself offers a number of clues to the fact that when all is said and done, these guys aren't actually good people. At one point in the story Swan begins a sort of courtship with a girl he meets along the way named Mercy. This leads to some heroic moments where the two of them unite in battle, they share an amazing kiss in a moment of relief after a daring escape, he defends her honor on a train with nothing but a single look, and she stays by their side to fight when she could leave and save her own hide. Of course one of the first things he said to her was a threat to pull a train on her (if you're not familiar with the term, in this context it means gang rape). On top of that the bravest Warrior Ajax, who valiantly saves his brothers and fights more

aggressively than anyone else, makes it pretty clear more than once that he is a rapist.

So we're faced with a paradox. Through the course of the film's events you can't view the Warriors as anything but heroes, but up until the very moment before and very soon after those events they go back to being the villains they always were.

I think that there are a number of lessons here. The first being that there is a hero in the soul of everyone but it must be nurtured, valued and respected and never sacrificed. Not to convenience not to the comfort of a group, never.

Another lesson is to remember that great moments of heroism can be found everywhere and from everyone even those you least expect. But when judging such events, remember the character of the person whose act you admire, and if necessary value the act but not necessarily the actor. One moment of heroism doesn't automatically make someone a hero, always remember that the capital gained from an act of heroism can be spent with corruption but likewise the only price high enough to pay off a debt of corruption is heroism.